My Evening With Joni

I step into The Book Lady bookstore as the last of the rain dripped off the striped awning, puddles forming just next to the wicker baskets filled with 50-cent books. Winter is ending in Savannah. The warm air and scent of old novels rush around me dismissing the chilled wind from outside as the door shut. The Book Lady bookstore is a garden level—or ground floor—eclectic shop filled to the brim with literature, as books are placed in each and every direction onto dozens of green shelves. I walk over to the two fireplaces in the middle of the red brick wall. They are adorned with posters and banners representing local artists. The first fireplace has Flannery O’Connor books stacked on it, above which hangs a sign that reads, “All Writers are Local Somewhere.” The wooden floor creaks beneath me as I scan the books on the wall, and notice the desk with a computer and paperwork on it. Behind glass sit books labeled as “special” and “rare.” Among their titles are “The Warmth of Other Sons,” “The Instructions,” and “Dandelion Wine.”

In front of the fireplace, two men are setting up microphones. “Put those little things next to the bag of ice.” I turn to find Brian Dean, of Seersucker Live, testing his 80s vintage keyboard, which his partner, Zach Powers, borrowed from his older brother. Seersucker, that night consisting of Zach Powers on the saxophone and Brian on the keyboard, is described as a “literary arts nonprofit in Savannah, Georgia, promoting the local literary community through reading performances and workshops, featuring national, regional, and local writers.” The group of writers and entertainers attempt (and succeed) to liven up the average literature reading with music and jokes, while still considering the work intellectually. Their slogan is as easy a concept to grasp as any: “Part literary reading. Part talk show. Part cocktail party.” Sounds fun, right?

Joni, the book lady herself--at least now she is--comes rushing through from the back door, an overflowing tote bag thrown over her left arm. Zach and Brian give a uniform but excited, “Hi Joni.”

 “Hi boys,” she replies. She turns to me. “Just give me five minutes.”

She weaves through the maze of chairs set up for the night’s event, disappearing into the side room stocked with beer and wine. I focus my attention on the poetry section, as Zach and Brian discuss “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” a nonfiction book written about a murder trial in Savannah. Brian murmurs something about he’s never read it, as he picks up a copy from a nearby table. “Oh, you’ve got to read it now that you’re here. I didn’t read it until 2015,” Zach suggests, adjusting his blue, cotton button down that coincidentally matches the laces of his converse.

“When did it come out?”

“1994.”

Joni bursts back into the room, short of breath, hair flipped to one side. I follow her through a thin hallway, lined with books, to a back room, also lined with books. There isn’t a spot in the store that isn’t covered from ceiling to floor with bookshelves. She moves a few books from a chair and places them on the table, straightening the stack. Joni is a force of nature, power in the form of a woman, wearing a long beige trench coat and tennis shoes. Her blue eyes peak out at me from behind brown, rectangular frames. Her skin is untouched, showing no evidence of makeup, and her thin lips widen to reveal a set of straight, white teeth.

When discussing how she began her career, she explains her background in political science and international relations. It takes me aback. “And I thought that I would be living out of the country and you know, continuing that work, you know, and to me, I loved the research end of political science and international relations and interviewing people.”  How did an interest in political science morph into owning a bookshop?

“I don’t know to me, they’re all sort of the same. I’ve always been around books,” Joni starts, as Zach and Brian sound check their instruments. “You know, my family’s very bookish and so no matter what else I was doing or working on, I worked part time at her [Mrs. Raskin’s] store, just for fun.” Mrs. Raskin, a Brooklyn native, founded the shop in 1978. After her marriage in 1946, she and her husband, Sidney L. Raskin, moved to Savannah where they raised their four children. Her son, Alex Raskin, now owns his own antique shop on Monterey Square and owns the building The Book Lady is currently located in. Joni says this “makes it still feel like family” and she expresses her gratitude renting from a Raskin, as she is still close with the family. Anita Raskin herself was given the nickname “The Book Lady.” Known to hunt around sales for books, Raskin first met Joni at a garage sale.

A photograph in a simple wooden frame hangs in the shop at 6 East Liberty Street over the doorway to the fiction section. It features Anita Raskin in her late 70s. She wears a red skirt and white blouse, standing in the middle of a chaotic office overflowing with books, papers, and frames. Her personality emanates from behind the glass and seems to match Joni’s description. “She had a wry wit, she was brilliant, she was a published poet.” Her eyes are squinted behind a large pair of glasses, and a thin gold watch lies on her left wrist. She is holding a white, cardboard box and smiling. The photograph seems to capture her essence as authentically as possible.

“I just adored her,” Joni says. “We just shared a love of books, we were very much in sync and I was very willing to learn. And she was generous enough to share all her knowledge with me and teach me. We had so much fun together.”

Raskin opened her first bookstore in the basement of Ed and Caroline Hill’s home on Bull Street, off Monterey Square. In 1988 the store moved to York Street, just off Wright Square. Joni described the original shop as a tenth of its current size. When Raskin fell ill and passed away in 2002, Joni assumed Raskin’s role, purchasing the business, moving it to East Liberty Street in 2006, and renovating. Located in the historical “Brown Ward,” its current building was constructed in 1854 and was home to the well-known coffee shop Gallery Espresso before The Book Lady moved in. Expanding the stock was one of the first things Joni did when she took the reins. “[We] completely revamped the stock and moved it over here and then we expanded. The last 9 years, we have started all the author events.” One of the shop’s first author signings featured novelist Maxine Swann.

Joni’s value of and involvement in the community grows with each new addition of the The Book Lady, specifically when working with local authors for readings and events. “We do them with every organization in town, every convention, every symposium, so it’s grown slowly, every year and so we’re just super busy doing it now,” she says. Zach, of Seersucker, recognizes her contributions to Savannah’s literary community. “She’s an advocate for books,” he says, “and as a writer, that’s the thing you want most. It’s hard to find people who support literature in the highest sense of the word, you know.” Zach explains that in addition to the books and the written texts, there’s a literary side involving discussion and understanding, one he feels is ignored most often. But he’s happy to note, “She’s [Joni] just an advocate for it. She wants to embrace local writers; she wants to embrace people who come through town… She’s involved in a large portion of everything that goes on in Savannah. That’s fantastic.”

And with the bookshop came a book club. “It’s been going for I don’t know how many years—12, 15 years? Same core group of people,” Joni explains. “We were still over at the old location [when the book club started], we were still tiny, and one of my customers approached me and said let’s get together our friends and, you know, have a book club, reading club. And we did! It was that simple.” The club reads everything from memoirs to fiction, male and female authors, and they attempt to meet once a month for discussion. The Book Lady bookstore has become an integral cog in the city of Savannah when it comes to anything literary.

Guests begin filling in and I find myself a cozy, wooden armchair placed snug between two bookcases. As I notice nearly everyone in the room wears glasses, I almost feel out of place without a set of frames resting on the bridge of my nose. Two elderly women with identical cat-eye glasses shuffle past me. “Let’s see if we can get something to drink,” the woman on the left winks at the other, as they disappear around the corner. The book on the shelf immediately to my right is titled “Mona Lisa’s Pajamas.” Before I have time for my thumb to flip through its pages, Zach and Brian call the crowd’s attention with a free-styled composition. There is a woman on the other side of the room wearing a top hat with a clock and several pins on the front. When the first poet, Don Cellini, comes to the stand, he asks her to keep time for him, but she explains her clock is defective. “Defective,” Powers chimes in, “that’s our motto.” He nods for Cellini to begin reading by playing a few notes on his saxophone. The woman beside me shifts, her chair creaking softly.

Cellini says he is a local “teacher and translator, a poet and photographer--the first two by training, the last two by good fortune.” He has four published books of poetry, all of which are bilingual in both Spanish and English. Cellini is a jolly man with a thick, white mustache and small, deeply set eyes, who speaks as if he is the wise grandfather who smokes cigars in the back corner at your graduation party. He sports a blue collared shirt, and there is a Fitbit on his left wrist, opposing his rounded physique. He’s closely positioned between a ladder full of books and the first row of guests.

The cramped space undermines the shop’s huge success. This independent bookshop, hidden within the Deep South, is still thriving with no thanks to luck. Joni claims her success is a factor of her financial skills and common sense. “Of course you want to go out and buy tons of stock immediately,” Joni says, “but you can’t. You have to be smart about your choices. Know your customers. Be flexible. Change what you carry, change what you do.” Of course it makes sense to constantly adapt to your surroundings, even if that sounds difficult. If your customers only read historic fiction, you won’t stock the shelves with romantic novels. But how does a local shop battle against chains like Barnes and Noble or Amazon?

The New York Times reports, “running an independent bookstore has lately become a much more complicated endeavor. Owners are grappling with the new realities of online bookselling.” Even Joni admits Amazon’s services are a complete game changer and USA Today stands behind her, “Amazon has 22.6% of the book market — ahead of … independents,” who are barely holding onto their 6%. With shops closing nationwide, Joni says her saving grace is knowing her customers personally and knowing what her business stands for. “So we just have to do what we do, that’s really the big challenge. We have to be the best at customer service in all areas and big box stores are not that so that was fairly easy ‘cause we have a personal relationship with customers, we have a personal relationship with our community so we just—the challenge is to be what you are, do you know what I mean?” She stresses her shop’s individuality and credits that aspect as just one of the unique factors that draws customers in, inspiring authors and organizations to collaborate. “You just have to be quicker and work harder and longer,” Joni says. She’s also grateful for word-of-mouth publicity. “The author events gave, and give, a long term payoff from which we are now seeing the results. We get our face and professional reputation more exposure, and the customers then visit the store, choose us as their preferred bookseller, tell friends and colleagues, who in turn of course come in to the store too.”

Dedication and intelligence are two departments the shop owner is most definitely not lacking in. She makes that clear as she shares with me her daydreams about expanding even more. “We’ve always thought about expanding and having a bigger event space. That’s [the] number one goal, right?” Joni explains. “But maybe later. But I’m not going to be foolish financially. I’m not going to buy spaces three times bigger and have to pay three times more rent if we can’t afford it.” The businesswoman behind the bookworm comes out as she goes on about how she keeps her shop running without fail. As she passionately rambles on about the store’s potential growth, “you know, Square Books of Oxford Mississippi, right? They have the dream situation. They’re all on a square and they have three separate stores—a kids’ one, and a used one, and a new books one. I love that. Of course we’d all love to do that.” Her devotion to the literary arts and the literary scene here in Savannah is prominent once again.

“We’re just going to, you know, keep being energetic about what we do, be opened to change, and keep growing, we hope,” she adds.

Cellini’s line “silence is the perfect poem” evokes a quiet sigh from the audience and they gently applaud as he finishes. Zach steps up to the microphone to thank the audience for an “awesome” turnout as Brian provides a brief interlude on his keyboard.

Jeffery Harrison of Boston, Massachusetts, is welcomed to the stage. He has a pair of glasses in his left hand and another folded over the collar of his shirt. He later explains with a poem he rejected his eye doctor’s suggestion to get bifocals. His curly, untamed hair thins out around the top of his head and his pale blue eyes are lined with dark circles. He is tall and thin, and seems to feel comfortable surrounded by this many books but a little uncomfortable standing in front of this many people. This is the last stop on his book tour. His calm, nasally voice reads out poems about a fork he stole from the worst professor he’s ever had, his brother’s death, and the way his son drinks tap water from the faucet.

Joni says, besides the books, meeting and working with authors is one of her favorite aspects of running the shop. “Meeting brilliant authors and being exposed to the writing and being able to help them get their work out there, get it exposed to more customers, getting our customers excited about new writers that we love and admire and that—that gets me excited,” she smiles. “That really makes my day.” I can say she succeeds at exposing customers to amazing new authors, as the audience gives its final applause of the evening and I walk home with Harrison’s latest book of poetry in my arms, his signature inside.

At the end of the day, Joni swears by a Barbara Tuchman quote; “Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation as a standstill.” She says it’s her shop’s philosophy, and her adoration for literature and her community shines through yet again. “And I know that sounds kind of grandiose, but we believe it. Seriously,” she began, “I just feel like, you know, if there’s a last great hope of civilization, bookstores are going to be a part of that. People that love to learn, love to read, love their community.”

© 2016